selfaware soup

Esther Weidauer

Professional DSLRs in 2024

It's an amazing time to buy a professional DSLR and here's why.


photo of a Canon 6D DSLR with a long 70-200mm Sigma lens attached

(The 6D I had until a couple years ago)

In the last 15 years I’ve shot on Nikon and Canon DSLRs, as well as Sony and Olympus mirrorless cameras and after a few years on Micro-Four-Thirds decided to go full-frame again and landed on a Canon 5DS, a camera from nine years ago that still holds up very well. This little chuck of history and buyer’s guide is based on my own experience with various of these cameras and my research into the current market as of March 2024.

DSLRs (digital single-lens reflex cameras) are dead. Long live DSLRs!

These big, bulky, and heavy cameras were synonymous with “serious photography” for decades, from the days of film through the first two decades of the digital era, but now have largely been replaced by mirrorless camera systems like the Canon R and Sony A7 lines. I will largely ignore smaller systems like Micro-Four-Thirds and the Sony APS-C cameras because while they are excellent allround and travel cameras for enthusiast photographers, the focus here will be high-end and/or professional-grade cameras which just have different requirements. Things like Canon’s 5D and 6D line or Nikon’s D7xx or D8xx series and their successors or newer competition. All of these are “full-frame” cameras, meaning they have sensors that are roughly the size of a 35mm film negative. This is pretty much the default in professional photo gear outside of some specific exceptions like wildlife photography which can benefit from the crop factor of a smaller sensor in order to get more effective range out of the already long lenses used there.

When Sony introduced the A7 series in 2013, the end of the full-frame DSLR was coming. It was the first mirrorless camera that could even compare in that segment and Sony proved that they had really figured out digital image sensors. On pure specs, especially dynamic range, they soon outperformed Canon and Nikon DSLRs. They were always better at high-definition video, and also smaller and lighter.

What they were lacking was ergonomics and battery life. The smaller bodies had less room for buttons and physical dials to a lot of functions were buried in menus or touch-screen interfaces while the electronic viewfinders and screens used a lot more battery power than a DSLR. You know what a professional photographer shooting a fancy wedding doesn’t ever want to do? Messing around on a kind-of slow touch screen and change batteries all the time. This was why DSLRs remained the default in pro usage for years. They were more reliable, much faster to control, their batteries lasted forever, and both of the big systems have had excellent lenses available since forever.

What exactly makes these cameras “professional”? It’s not plain image quality. In some aspects they perform worse than their “consumer” counterparts. The important features for people who need to rely on their gear are mostly about control and quick operation. Pretty much all DSLRs that target a professional market have secondary status displays for example that show the current exposure settings without having to look at the back screen. They also have dedicated buttons to quickly change the most important settings and they offer things like easily accessible custom presets on the main mode dial. There’s also battery grips, secondary card slots for data redundancy, accessory ports for remote triggers and flashes. It’s all these little quality-of-life things that distinguish a pro camera, apart from delivering high quality, but also importantly consistent results.

Now in 2024, DSLRs are clearly on the way out. Canon and Nikon have retreated from making them entirely and they both have introduced their lines or high-end mirrorless systems with the R and Z line respectively. The shortcomings of mirrorless systems are also outweighed by advances in sensors by now. These things can shoot faster, at lower light, and with better dynamic range than any DSLR ever could, and that while being lighter, which is great for people like wedding photographers who often have at least two cameras on them with different lenses. The lens lineups have filled in most of the gaps, although often at a significant price hike compared to their DSLR counterparts. The ergonomics issue remains but it’s now a compromise a lot more people are willing to make.

This has led to two things: a high end camera along with a decent lens selection in 2024 is more expensive that ever. At the same time, those DSLRs that were the high end 10 years ago have dropped in price significantly as many photographers have cycled out their gear for the newer stuff. But these cameras are still just as excellent as they were. Basically every billboard as or magazine cover you’ve seen in the last 20 years has been shot with one of these, and most likely with a Canon 5D.

If you’re looking to buy one of the best cameras ever made in 2024, it’s the perfect time. There’s still enough supply of used professional DSLRs that have fairly low counts of shutter releases and the prices are at a low. You can get a whole kit of very good gear, an amazing camera and at least one excellent lens, for a similar amount that would only get you the most basic new full-frame mirrorless and maybe a halfway decent lens. There’s a few things to look out for though.

I would mostly recommend to stick with Canon bodies, the 5D and 6D lines, for one reason: any camera that uses the EF mount can use any lens that uses the EF mount and it’ll work as expected. That gives you access to nearly four decades of available lenses. You can get some very good lenses for very little money, or some of the best photo lenses ever made for still reasonable money, like the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II. You probably also should tend towards the later versions of these cameras as they may have better sensors and a lot of very nice features that give them superior handling. The 6D mark 1 and 2, 5D mark 3 and 4, and a 5DS or 5DSR are all incredible cameras and still cover a wide range of budgets. I’ve seen a 6D sell for as little as 300€, which is ridiculously low. That’s the price of a new crappy point-and-shoot today that outputs pictures that look worse than those made on a good smartphone.

Nikon bodies will be similar in overall quality and performance but the lens compatibility is more complicated. Do your research on this ahead of time. Not all lenses for the F-mount will have autofocus on every F-mount body. But if you like the controls on the Nikons better or already have some compatible Nikon lenses, you’ll get excellent performance out of these too.

Really think about what sensor resolution you need. If you’re going to put your photos up on your website or Instagram, you really don’t need anything beyond 20MP. The high resolution bodies like the 5DS and D850 are interesting for large prints, macro work, or special niche use cases that require that resolution. But for general purpose photography, resolution really isn’t the main concern in these cameras.

High-ISO settings are also far less important that it might seem. You’ll rarely find yourself shooting at anything above ISO 6,400 anyway, and if you do, you really should have brought a tripod or a strobe. You can crank the ISO up in a pinch but it’ll mostly not be worth it. If it’s only about capturing a moment in a dim room, your phone will probably do a better job at that.

Other things I would check are:

Less important things:

The ergonomics of a pro DSLR are simply unmatched, just because of the physical controls they offer. If you’re used to crammed menu screens and flaky touch-screens that you can’t read in sunlight, it’ll be a revelation when you can change your ISO, exposure compensation, or focus points without even looking at the camera because there are dedicated buttons and dials for that. The secondary status displays that these bodies usually have on the top are incredibly useful, the battery life is incredible, and you’ll never find these cameras fighting you on your way to get to a result you want. They are clearly designed for intense use.

Because all of these cameras are now several years old, it’s also easy to find long-term real-world reviews on Youtube from photographers who know their ins and outs very well. You’ll absolutely know what you’re getting.